Café Comercial’s final tradition: the pending coffee and sandwich

Madrid coffeehouse adopted an Italian custom of paying for the next customer's drink

In photos: Madrileños bid farewell to Café Comercial.
In photos: Madrileños bid farewell to Café Comercial.

Hanging over the counter of Café Comercial, there were two slates where waiters kept a tally that was updated by hand with a piece of chalk.

This is where staff at the legendary Madrid venue kept track of the number of beverages and sandwiches that customers paid for but did not consume, as an anonymous gift to those who could not afford them.

It was the last tradition to be incorporated into Madrid’s oldest coffeehouse, once famous for its gatherings of 19th-century literati.

Café Comercial's Facebook page explained the Italian origin of the custom.
Café Comercial's Facebook page explained the Italian origin of the custom.

Café Comercial suddenly, and without warning, shut its doors on Monday, after a history spanning 128 years.

The initiative for the sponsored food and drink became a reality in October 2012, with the economic crisis in full swing.

The establishment’s Facebook page explained it thus: “Starting today we will start to serve ‘caffè sospeso’!!! If you feel happy about anything, share your joy with others who are not having a good day. Shall we make others happy and let them make us happy as well?”

The tradition of the caffè sospeso was explained with this quote from the Italian writer Luciano de Crescenzo:

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“In Naples, in the neighborhood of Sanitá, when somebody was happy because something good had happened to them, instead of paying for one coffee they paid for two, leaving the money on the table for the next client. This gesture came to be known as ‘caffè sospeso’, literally, pending coffee. If someone walked into the cafeteria they would ask if there were any ‘sospesos’. In a way, it was like buying coffee for humanity.”

Months later, a website called cafespendientes.es cropped up with information about similar initiatives in more than 40 Spanish cities. Its Facebook page has over 16,000 followers.

During the first two years after going into effect, Café Comercial handed out more than 7,500 sponsored coffees, according to figures provided by the coordinator of caféspendientes.es, marketing expert Gonzalo Sapiña, as reported by EL PAÍS health supplement Buenavida.

The initiative was working. The blog Somos Malasaña, which covers neighborhood life in this trendy part of Madrid, had the following to say about it:

“Contrary to what some may think, it turns out that the ‘sospesos’ are not flying off the shelves at Café Comercial. Late on an ordinary day last week, with the slate showing a hefty number of sponsored coffees, one of the waiters confessed he hadn’t served any. People are not taking advantage of this.”

Last Christmas, Café Comercial made a short video to spread the word about the initiative further, using actors to embody “the spirit of the pending coffees.”

“In 2012, Café Comercial was behind the Pending Coffee and Sandwich initiative. It involves paying ahead of time for a coffee or a sandwich for the neediest people,” explains the narrator in the video.

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